• U.S.

A One-Man Earthquake

11 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washington

When Senator Jim Jeffords bolted from the Republican Party last week, throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats and reprogramming the Capitol power grid, it took almost no time for the first signs of the new order to appear. There was White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez cooling his heels outside the Senate chamber until Democrat Patrick Leahy, now the presumptive chairman of the Judiciary Committee, could spare a moment to meet with him. There was the business lobbying group known as Arctic Power, quietly canceling a 10-state, $500,000 radio ad blitz designed to sell Memorial Day motorists on President Bush’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. There were the two dozen tripods set up a full hour before Tom Daschle made his first march down the Capitol steps as Senate majority leader–a striking change from the single C-SPAN camera that used to cover his news conferences. And finally, there was Senator Don Nickles gazing at the sign saying ASSISTANT MAJORITY LEADER that will no longer greet him when he enters his office each day. “I like that sign,” he said ruefully.

A Senator’s decision to leave his party is a small tectonic shift, but in the fragile geology of an evenly divided Senate, Jeffords’ decision shook the ground, rattled the windows, wrecked the walls and tossed the furniture. What made the shift worse was that it happened in the middle of what was supposed to have been George W. Bush’s most triumphant week since the Inauguration. His signature tax cut was set to clear Congress, and his other big agenda item, education reform, passed the House. Republicans expected to go home to their Memorial Day parades basking in the first great accomplishments of the Bush era.

Then the ground buckled. Was it a one-man earthquake or an electoral aftershock? Having lost the popular vote and pulled the closest of victories from the rubble of Florida, Bush built his high-rise presidency dangerously close to the fault line. He governed as though he had a mandate, muscled his agenda through Congress by picking off a few conservative Democrats and ignoring the rest, and punished those who defied him. He could get away with it because all the lawmaking horsepower was in Republican control, and it seemed to be working for him–until Jeffords tore his high-rise down. Now, Daschle told TIME, the balance of power is “probably more in keeping with what the American people intended.”

A new TIME/CNN poll suggests he may be right: 45% of those polled believe the country will be better off with the Senate in Democratic hands, while 36% prefer Republican control, and 19% aren’t sure. But this balancing act may also be a formula for gridlock, with each side able to block the other but neither able to push its priorities. If no one budges, “we’re all losers,” Daschle said.

How did this happen? Bush was determined not to make his father’s fatal mistake of neglecting the conservative Republican base. Instead, he may have repeated the near fatal one Bill Clinton made in his first two years in office. Having run as a centrist who could forge a new bipartisan middle, Bush–like Clinton–started governing in a way that seemed rather to cater to his party’s extreme. Where Clinton had gays in the military and Hillarycare, Bush had Arctic drilling, global warming, a Vice President who scoffs at conservation and a hard-right Attorney General, John Ashcroft. As Jeffords announced his decision to become an independent, the Senator who traces his family’s Republican roots back to the days of Lincoln said, “Looking ahead, I see more and more instances where I will disagree with the President on very fundamental issues–the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment and a host of other issues, large and small.”

What forced Clinton back to the center, of course, was the landslide 1994 election that turned both houses of Congress over to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. He resculpted his presidency in the image of his campaign, working budget deals with the Republicans, passing welfare reform with them, leaving his party behind when it wouldn’t come along.

Now that Bush has suffered a one-man version of 1994, some moderate politicians are hoping he will make a similar mid-course correction. But for now at least, the Bush White House rejects the comparison and promises no changes. This was no national referendum, Administration officials say, just one wobbly liberal who decided to walk off the end of the pier–perhaps, they suggest, to salvage a chairmanship he was slated to lose in 18 months under Senate rules. “This is a guy who said he found it impossible to support an agenda that the President has spent two years talking about,” says Bush strategist Karl Rove. And it is true that on the issue that Jeffords cares most about–education–Bush has moved to the left, cutting deals with Ted Kennedy and abandoning vouchers. White House communications director Karen Hughes says Jeffords “was quite comfortable remaining in the Republican Party when the leaders talked about abolishing the Department of Education, but he’s not comfortable with a President committed to education.”

Those arguments ignore the fact that many of Bush’s most conservative agenda items were hidden away in the campaign’s fine print and covered over by his big messages about moderation and helping the little guy. His compassionate rhetoric masked his conservatism, but five months of decision making have pulled off the mask.

If all that has just dawned on Jeffords, he has plenty of company. The TIME/CNN poll shows public disapproval of the job Bush is doing has climbed 14 points since early February, to 38%; nearly half of those polled say they are somewhat or very unlikely to vote for him next time–about the same percentage that felt that way about Clinton at this point in his first term.

Rove and others insist there will be no change of plan. Some Republicans were even claiming that this was no big deal, that they could still pick off the Democrats they needed and would now have someone to blame when they couldn’t. But plans are already in place to soften Bush’s image on energy and the environment, largely through the sort of public events that worked so well at marketing him during the campaign. White House strategists are also planning some symbolic overtures to G.O.P. moderates in the coming weeks to tamp down any rebellion Jeffords might have inspired.

Both parties are on high alert for other defectors. If Jeffords bolted over slights like not being invited to a Rose Garden ceremony for the Vermont educator named Teacher of the Year, thoughtfulness was the rule by week’s end. Republican leader Trent Lott, reeling from the loss of his majority leader post, was on the phone daily to chart the biorhythms of Rhode Island moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee, and probably would have delivered breakfast to his office had he asked. Chafee’s long-standing request for a meeting with Bush was answered with a phone message from congressional liaison Nick Calio: “Do you have any problem with sooner rather than later?” Worried that Georgia Democrat Zell Miller might go Republican, Democratic whip Harry Reid personally walked Miller to one of the Democratic caucus meetings that Miller has been ducking of late, making sure Miller knows he has been missed. And an Armed Services Committee hearing last week looked more like a group-therapy session, with Kansas Republican Pat Roberts hugging his Maine colleague Susan Collins and telling her he loved her, only to be hip-checked by Democrat Joe Lieberman, who wanted to give her a hug himself.

One Republican who has been in quiet talks with the Democrats about the possibility of becoming an independent, sources tell TIME, is Bush’s onetime presidential rival John McCain. A Democratic source says the Arizona Senator initiated surreptitious contact about six weeks ago; a Republican one says Kennedy and North Carolina Democrat John Edwards raised the idea in a meeting they arranged with McCain in Kennedy’s hideaway office. More talks ensued–including sessions with Daschle and Reid–but McCain, if he ever seriously entertained the idea of switching, may find it more to his advantage to stay put. Though the White House has done its best to keep him out of the action, he is now perfectly positioned to be the dealmaker it needs in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

While McCain seems poised to become a de facto Republican leader, the future of the titular one is uncertain. It was Trent Lott’s intelligence failure, some noted, that let Jeffords slip away. No one was stepping forward to challenge Lott for the top job–not yet, at least–but there was much G.O.P. grousing about the need for more aggressive leadership. Of the names being mentioned as possible replacements, most were Senators inclined to steer the caucus toward a harder line against the Democrats, not a more conciliatory one.

It’s no surprise that sources close to Lott blame the White House for losing the Senate. “They should have been coddling Jeffords, not punishing him,” one says. “By any undergraduate political-science calculation, the G.O.P. needed Jim Jeffords more than Jim Jeffords needed the G.O.P.”

None of which suggests that things will be easy for Daschle, who understands better than almost anyone else that Senate leadership is an oxymoron. His new job will be the second hardest in Washington. “It’s still the same 100 people. You still have the close division of parties and philosophies, so I don’t think anything becomes easier,” he told TIME. “The only thing that radically changes is who sets the agenda.”

If Daschle cannot dictate how the Senate will work, he and his committee chairmen will have the power to decide which bills reach the floor. He can force the debate to happen on his terms, at least in his half of the Capitol.

That reality was already sinking in during final negotiations over the tax bill, which emerged from the House-Senate conference late Friday night and passed in both chambers Saturday. Business lobbyists had been relatively restrained in trying to wedge special breaks into Bush’s big tax cut, in part because the White House was promising there would be more to come. But with the realization that this could be their last big meal for a very long time, the grocery-store owners whose priority is eliminating the estate tax were elbowing the brokerage firms that wanted to preserve provisions that give greater incentives for retirement savings. That was a prelude to what will happen later this year, when the Senate Democrats’ spending priorities collide with the House Republicans’ dreams of smaller government.

The first new business to come up after the Memorial Day recess, Daschle vows, will be the patient’s bill of rights–not the version Bush touted as a compromise, but the one Daschle wants, which gives patients vastly greater leeway to sue their HMOs. After the Senate passed the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill in April, Lott refused to send it to the House. Daschle told TIME, “I’ll hand-deliver it if I have to.”

His new committee chairmen will take their shots as well. Bush’s missile-defense proposal is likely to look a lot different once it goes through a panel headed by chairman Carl Levin, a leading skeptic. At Commerce, South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings will put a shoulder to Bush’s deregulatory push. While Democrats as a first gesture of conciliation dropped their efforts to stall the nomination of Solicitor General Ted Olson, Bush’s more controversial judicial nominations may die in Leahy’s Judiciary Committee–or be euthanized before they get there. On Saturday, for example, the New York Times reported that California conservative Chris Cox asked Bush not to nominate him to the federal bench because the confirmation fight would now be too bloody.

Though all it took was one Senator to fracture the landscape in the capital, it will take everyone to put it back together. On Wednesday, Daschle called Bush, and the two men spoke for the first time since March. “He expressed his congratulations, and we talked about attempting to set a new tone and attempting to work together constructively,” Daschle said. “It was a very nice conversation.” And it may have been a start. Thanks to a stern, quiet man named Jeffords, Bush may finally have the opportunity to create the kind of Washington he promised last fall.

–With reporting by James Carney, John F. Dickerson, Sally B. Donnelly, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

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